Banks have been lamenting low interest rates for almost a decade. In boardrooms and on earnings calls, low rates have been blamed for shrinking margins, tepid deposit growth and intense loan competition.
With rates now up more than 100 basis points from their lows, we're about to find out where that was true, and where interest rates were just a convenient scapegoat. Management teams and boards now face a few strategic questions. Among them: How is lending typically impacted by higher rates, and what strategies should my institution consider as rates continue to rise?
First, as the Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee puts upward pressure on overnight rates, there is typically a follow-on effect further out on the curve. But, these effects are rarely 1:1, resulting in a flattening yield curve. Bear flatteners, in which short-term interest rates increase more quickly than long-term rates, differ in severity, but if this one is anything like the period following the last Fed tightening cycle—from June 2004 through August 2006, as shown in the chart below—banks could be in for some pain.
Second, as rates start to quickly rise, nominal loan yields lag, resulting in declining credit spreads. It takes time for borrowers to adjust to the new reality, and competing banks can be expected to play a game of chicken, waiting to see which will blink first on higher loan rates and face a potential loss of market share.
Taken together, these two phenomena can put intense pressure on loan profitability. Banks are now enjoying an increase in net interest margins, but this comes on the back of rising yields on floating rate loans funded with deposits that have not yet become more expensive. Deposit costs will soon start moving, and once they do, they can move quickly.
This is a time when a rising tide no longer lifts all boats, and the banks that properly navigate the asset side of their balance sheet will start to separate themselves from everyone else. So, what does "proper navigation" look like? It's not timing the market or outguessing the competition. Instead, winning during pivots in interest rates is all about adhering to a disciplined pricing process.
Trust the Yield Curve
The top performing banks let the yield curve guide pricing. We see evidence of this discipline in the mix between floating and fixed-rate structures. When rates were low, and the yield curve was steep, many banks were tempted to move out on the curve. They instituted arbitrary minimum starting rates on floating structures and saw their share of fixed-rate loans reach record highs. Now that rates are starting rise, these banks fear the exposure those fixed rates created, so they are desperately trying to correct the mix.
Disciplined banks ended up with the opposite scenario. With a steep curve, they found the lower floating-rate structures to be popular with borrowers. Now that the curve is flattening, borrowers are choosing more fixed-rate structures. These banks have large blocks of floating-rate loans that are now repricing higher, and that mix will naturally shift to fixed as rates move higher and the curve flattens, protecting them from dropping yields when the cycle eventually turns again. These banks let the yield curve help them manage their exposure, working in sync with borrower demand instead of against it.
Supercharge Cross-Sell Efforts
We also see top performing banks paying more attention than ever to their cross-selling efforts. In a rising rate environment, low cost deposits become much more valuable. Banks that already have deposit gathering built into their lending function are taking advantage, as their relationship managers can offer more aggressive loan pricing when the deals are accompanied by net new deposits. These banks have well-established processes for measuring the value of these deposits, tracking the delivery of promised new business and properly incentivizing their relationship managers to chase the right kind of new accounts.
When it comes to surviving—and thriving—in a rising rate environment, there is no magic bullet or secret shortcut. Instead, the answer lies in continuing to do what you should have been doing all along: Trusting the process you've built, staying disciplined and ignoring all the noise around you in the market.
And if you don't have a process—a true north that you can use to guide your commercial bank's pricing strategy—then get one right now. Rough seas may well lie ahead.